NNSA Vows Nonproliferation Program Review in Face of Budget Criticism

U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D’Agostino participates in a tour of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border crossing that received radiation detection equipment under his agency’s Second Line of Defense program. Agency officials on Tuesday pledged to conduct a strategic assessment of the initiative, which faces a possible 65 percent funding cut under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).
U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D’Agostino participates in a tour of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border crossing that received radiation detection equipment under his agency’s Second Line of Defense program. Agency officials on Tuesday pledged to conduct a strategic assessment of the initiative, which faces a possible 65 percent funding cut under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON – Top U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration officials on Tuesday pledged to complete a strategic review of a program intended to prevent the smuggling of nuclear material across international borders amid assertions they are proposing dangerous budget cuts to the initiative (see GSN,  Feb. 13).

The Obama administration for fiscal 2013 is requesting $92.6 million for the agency’s Second Line of Defense initiative, which installs radiation detection equipment at foreign border crossings, seaports and airports. If endorsed by Congress, the request would amount to a 65 percent funding cut to the program from the $262.1 million lawmakers allocated in the current budget year.

During a hearing on Capitol Hill, House appropriators aired strong reservations to the planned funding drop. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said the move would be “an incredible cut to a program which just last year the administration was defending as a critical part of our nation’s efforts to fight the illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials across international borders.”

Frelinghuysen, chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, said the reduction would require “a good explanation” from the administration.

Subcommittee Democrats used even stronger language. Reading a statement on behalf of Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (Ind.), Representative John Olver (Mass.) said he could not “fathom an explanation that will be satisfactory” regarding the proposed cut.

Per Visclosky’s statement, Olver complained that while the administration said it is seeking $163 million more for NNSA global nonproliferation efforts in the next budget – nearly $2.5 billion, compared to the roughly $2.3 billion allocated for fiscal 2012 – the increase would not benefit what he described as “core” programs to prevent the spread of sensitive materials.

Olver noted that $150 million of the nonproliferation spending boost would be directed to energy firm USEC for a gas centrifuge project. He also referenced a $236 million proposed increase to the Fissile Material Disposition Program.

Neither the USEC grant nor the Fissile Material Disposition Program “contributes to securing vulnerable materials,” Olver complained. The nuclear agency has not provided “any compelling reason for including the funding for” the company within the nonproliferation budget, he added, noting “that the increase in the account for USEC roughly corresponds to the drastic reduction in the Second Line of Defense program.”

Senior NNSA officials defended the cuts to lawmakers, saying that given the program’s near completion of its work in Russia, along with a constrained budget environment, it was prudent to “pause” and evaluate the initiative’s future.

The Second Line of Defense program is intended to catch nuclear or radiological materials that might be “fashioned into a weapon of mass destruction or a radiological dispersal device (‘dirty bomb’) to be used against the United States or its key allies and international partners,” according to the nuclear agency.

The core program by the end of 2012 will have installed radiation detection equipment at nearly 500 foreign ports or border crossing sites, including all 383 customs sites in Russia, the agency’s budget says. However, according to the agency’s website, the program’s goal is to equip approximately 650 sites in approximately 30 countries with detection equipment by 2018.

Second Line of Defense also encompasses the Megaports Initiative, which is to equip more than 100 seaports with radiation detection equipment capable of scanning approximately 50 percent of global shipping traffic by 2018.

Activists have also raised concerns about the proposed cut to the Second Line of Defense initiative in recent days. The reduction would occur alongside funding losses for other aspects of the NNSA International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation Program.

That effort encompasses the Second Line of Defense as well as “first line” programs to safeguard “vulnerable nuclear weapons stockpiles and fissionable materials in the former Soviet Union and other less stable regions,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a Monday analysis of the NNSA budget proposal. The fiscal 2013 budget plan calls for it to receive $311 million, a $259 million cut from present funding levels, the organization noted.

In addition, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative -- which secures, relocates or converts vulnerable nuclear material from civilian sites around the world – faces a $32 million, or 6 percent, cut to $466 million, it said.

“To cut funding for these programs now (particularly the SLD), when the nuclear black market persists and a country like Pakistan continues to expand the size of its fissile material stockpile while facing a destabilizing threat from al-Qaeda insurgents, is a dangerous deprioritization,” according to the NRDC analysis.

In general, the nonproliferation advocacy organization complained that the administration is requesting “disproportionately large funding for weapons activities when compared to nonproliferation.” The NNSA budget request calls for $7.6 billion for efforts to “maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent,” a $363 million boost from the amount Congress appropriated for the stockpile in this budget.

Top NNSA officials on Tuesday defended their budget request, particularly the proposed fiscal 2013 cut to the Second Line of Defense program.

Thomas D’Agostino, who heads the semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, said he wanted to ensure lawmakers that Second Line of Defense program operations remain an “important part of [the administration’s] overall strategy” and that it was “not abandoning” the effort.

Anne Harrington, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said the agency is “extremely focused on its first line of defense,” which she said included securing vulnerable nuclear materials.

In addition, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is conducting research that could provide the agency with the ability to develop “more subtle” radiation detectors that would be smaller and less noticeable to would-be traffickers, Harrington said.

The status of work in Russia and the pending new technology make it “important to take a step back and see where to go next," Harrington said.

According to D’Agostino’s written testimony, “a constrained budget environment” also contributed to the decision to initiate “a strategic review of the program to evaluate what combinations of capabilities and programs make the most effective contribution to national security.”

Tuesday’s session was the second the subcommittee has hosted recently on the NNSA budget.

During a Feb. 29 hearing on the agency’s request for its weapons activities, D’Agostino faced questions from Frelinghuysen regarding whether the proposal fully meet[s the agency’s] requirements to maintain the stockpile.”

Frelinghuysen noted that “during the rollout of [the NNSA] fiscal year 2013 budget request, [D’Agostino] stated that Congress had handed you  … ‘less than half of the increase you need to do the job.’”

D’Agostino responded by saying the fiscal 2013 budget request “absolutely does” meet the requirements” to maintain the stockpile.

Fiscal 2013 begins on Oct. 1.

March 7, 2012
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Top U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration officials on Tuesday pledged to complete a strategic review of a program intended to prevent the smuggling of nuclear material across international borders amid assertions they are proposing dangerous budget cuts to the initiative.